I have already written on this subject, especially when commenting on the Grand Inquisitor theme.
My task here is simply to offer a few summary ideas to help us all to understand how the “mechanism” works.
Fanaticism is not the result of faith but a lack of faith. It comes from fear that one’s commitment does not go far enough. Believing in God, praying and living a moral life are, for that person, not enough. There is the element of proving something to himself and others, showing his faith through extreme commitment.
All religious people feel they have to do something. Most go to church and try to avoid doing evil, being good decent folk. A next stage is serving the poor, getting involved with humanitarian works, giving money, becoming a priest, a monk or a nun. These are fully committed Christians. Then we have people who commit atrocities “in God’s name” like seventeenth-century Christians – both Protestant and Catholic – or today’s Muslims in the Taliban or Al Qaeda. This is fanaticism.
Fanaticism need not always involve murder. It can take many forms, superimposed on the predatory instincts of ruthless people seeking to establish their fields of power and dominion. The Grand Inquisitor (see above) is a perfect example of this kind of person and his motivations. Trolling on the Internet is also an aspect of this kind of personality when motivated by extreme religious “commitment”.
The borderline seems to be between the person who practices his faith and religion, but respects other people in their beliefs – tolerance and recognition of good and grace in the other. Proselytism is the beginning of predatory fanaticism when it involves trying to trash and destroy the other person’s basis, to create a need for the fanatic’s way. This is the usual approach implicit in commercial advertising, and is a common characteristic of unredeemed humanity.
If God has any interest in what human beings do, it is preferable that God should be seen as love (as said by St John and others in the Old and New Testaments) than as some kind of Lord High Führer who feeds on suffering, blood and death – the Demiurge or “bad creator god” of the Gnostics. Most of us are sure that a loving God would prefer us to be good decent folk than going to church and being evil in our lives!
Does that make us have to be liberals? That depends what liberalism means. If it means tolerating other people and recognising good and truth in them, then we should be liberal. If it is some kind of intolerant ideology to be imposed on others, then we should not be. It is as simple as that.
We should be aware that fanatics, as sociopaths / psychopaths in the world around us, are only a tiny minority. Most of our churches, mainstream and marginal, are made up of good, positive, decent and tolerant people. That goes for the Roman Catholic Church to the little group of Evangelicals in their improvised place of worship. Most of us want to serve God and be good to other people, helping those less fortunate than ourselves and being just. This is one thing we should remember. When there are problems, it isn’t the fault of the Church or most of us faithful and clergy – but of the tiny minority who have no empathy or care for other people, or any recognition of truth and goodness outside themselves.
That is fanaticism. When we recognise it for what it is, then we have nothing to fear.